January 10, 2012

Behind the Kohli face

We don't yet know what Virat Kohli will be, but he might have played the off-drive of the summer

A cricketer walking the wire is hard to look away from, and for four days last week Virat Kohli was a sight for prying eyes. He'd batted with a time bomb in his pocket in Melbourne; would there, for Kohli, even be a Sydney? Rohit Sharma's name was mentioned. The Kohli question - not the main question, hardly a question at all, an idle side-curiosity - bounced around kitchen tables all New Year. Only when the umpires were winding towards the SCG gate did the answer reach me, via a friend's text message: "Sadly, yes."

Soon India were four down, the Test was an hour and a half young, and Kohli was out there batting on a Tuesday. After the vanishing blur of Melbourne it felt good to fix eyes on him properly. That beard - well kept, yet redolent of a ragamuffin fistful of Indians we'd come to know in Australia and to like: Bedi, Chandra, Gundappa, Kirmani, Shiv Yadav. The bowlers, Pattinson especially, gifted Kohli leg glances and hip flicks he could have played sleepwalking. Also, they appeared to be straining too wide of off stump. Some trap? To a dozen of his first two-dozen deliveries, Kohli played the leave-alone. Whenever a bowler struck straight and short he jumped with the rising ball and cuffed it safely down. On 13, there was an off-drive off Peter Siddle - maybe the off-drive of the summer - wristy, simple, a half step, then punch, not much backlift, his left elbow so pointy it moved Richie Benaud, 81, to ruminate on how he'd long admired the technical rock-solidness of this kid, 23.

Eleven minutes after that Kohli was out caught by the wicketkeeper.

He bats right-handed, nothing showy about his stance, a small bend at the knees. What else? We know no other Indian ever got to 1000 runs so fast, although that was in one-day cricket - might be meaningful, might not be. No one anywhere scored so many one-day runs last year. It could be that Kohli stands at the brink of magical things. Or it could be otherwise.

When he was 18, newspapers reported his father died one morning and Kohli said this - "I want to bat" - then carried his overnight 40 not out to 90, steered Delhi past follow-on strife against Karnataka, was adjudged caught-behind to a ball that grazed pad not bat, and after looking at the replay left the ground, three or four hours before his father was cremated.

We know, too, that he tweets. "We are humans not machines," he tweeted on the first day of this year.

It used to be the way, even in the Test match hothouse, that a cricketer could have a nothing-happening-here few days and hope that no one would peer too closely at the scorecard; that no one saw. But on Wednesday I saw Kohli, wearing orange-rimmed sunglasses on a cloudy afternoon, hobble seven ginger steps and bowl eight unthreatening overs wrong-footed, chest-on and from wide of the crease, a cross between a quarter-pace Max Walker and a defeated frog clinging to a plughole.

How runs must trickle for the endangered batsman, with a million eyes - or a billion, if you're Kohli - on you. Some crack up. Others fight it and narrowly avoid cracking up

Then he fumbled at cover when Clarke was on 170.

Later he raised his left middle finger at some hecklers over the boundary who said things about his mum and sister.

On Thursday he made a fine diving save beside the midwicket fence when Clarke was on 319.

To bat is hardest. One mistake and you're out is the eternal gnawing tension in the psyche. Some weeks, the equation gets more gruelling: one mistake and you're out for the day, out of the team, out of the short-term sponsorship reckonings of the car company that helped pay for the loan on your recently purchased house. Still you are expected to size up the next ball - speed, height, length, line, deviation - with millimetric precision. The TVs-everywhere age twists the pressure near panic point. It's said a watched pot never boils and watched clock never turns; how runs must trickle for the endangered batsman, with a million eyes - or a billion, if you're Kohli - on you. Some crack up. Others fight it and narrowly avoid cracking up.

Garry Sobers used to walk to the middle with, he said, his head "overloaded with thinking because every game of cricket has its own personality, its own mood".

Zaheer Abbas would tell himself some mornings while waiting his turn to go in, "Come on, Zed, the records show you are one of Pakistan's most successful batsmen."

Greg Chappell, on dark duck days, would be thinking, inside, "Come on, bowl so I can score."

Kohli is no Sobers, Zaheer or Chappell. He's Kohli - and what that is isn't clear. Maybe Rohit Sharma's time is coming. But we'll always have that off-drive off Siddle. In the second innings, on Friday, Kohli hooked a four, drove another four and played the leave-alone a dozen times in 23 balls.

A trap, that confirmed it. Next ball, he - but I can't say for sure that I saw.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country